Kerala, God’s Own Country, has food fit for them immortals. The land of spices and coconuts uses both these in ways so different. The Kerala food that I have sampled has always been subtly spiced with undertones of sweetness from fresh coconut; a light hand with the red chilli pepper and a preference for the famous Malabar peppercorns.
As promised, I bring to you a family favourite- Avial with Appams. While I got an early start on food from Tamil Nadu and Andhra, Kerala cuisine was a later discovery.
My good friend Prati, a true Delhiite (meaning belonging to Delhi – it bugs her when people ask – “no, but where are you really from?” It is true, people lived here before the rest of us moved in :-)! The oldest city, Old Delhi – where the present Mehrauli is, dates back to late 12C. Mughal Shahajahanabad, the other ‘Old Delhi’ came much later in mid-17C. Delhi accomodates withing it 8 capitals of various rulers including modern democratic New Delhi), served this non-yellow curry at a dinner many many years ago. One spoonful and my eyes widened at the unbelievable taste of this innocuous looking dish. This was the Avial, my friends. If you have a spoonful, you cannot but ask for the recipe.
And I am not going to give you one. You don’t need one. There is nothing simpler, really. Take a bunch of vegetables such as potatoes, carrots, peas, beans, and green bananas (I always use potatoes, green bananas, and jimikand – Indian yam, with either peas or beans). Chop them into equal sized pieces (1cm) and cook/steam (I pressure cooked my tubers and the banana, and zapped the beans in the microwave). Grate half a coconut and grind to a paste with some cumin and green chillies. You are supposed to use only coconut milk but I hate to throw away the squeezed out coconut. Mix this paste into a cup or more of beaten curd/yoghurt (this should not be sour) and add to the cooked vegetables. Add some water so that there is sufficient ‘curry’. Simmer till heated through. Do the usual tadka of mustard seeds, whole red chillies and kadi patta in a teaspoon or two of oil and add to the simmering avial. Don’t forget the salt.
There, it’s done. Serve it with steamed rice or appams. Keep the breads away this time.
About the appam now. The first time I had this fluffy hopper was at Ashok Yatri Niwas’ Coconut Grove. We were celebrating a birthday with my aforementioned friend. Our kids were toddlers and they were with us. So we sampled Malabari cuisine for the first time – it was a long time ago but I remember there was a fish curry among other things. And Avial (who can forget that, now!) and the wondrous appams, with crispy crepe-like edges and a soft spongy centre, perfect to soak up the delicately flavoured avial and ishtew.
But now there is the Shangri La Hotel where Ashok Yatri Niwas used to be, and consequently, there is no Coconut Grove either. So what am I to do every time I feel like tasting the food of the Gods…?
Cook it yourself, woman! Yes, but you cannot make appams till you have a recipe or a Mallu friend who can come to the rescue. I, unfortunately, don’t have a Mallu friend. But I did have a recipe in Madhur Jaffery’s A Taste of India. It was a recipe adapted so that appams could be conjured up in lands far far away from the Malabar coast. So it used eggs and yeast to replace the traditional toddy. But half the family (particularly MIL) would not eat eggs. The appam batter is made from rice and needs an additive for the fermentation unlike the dosa/idli batter where the urad dal aids proper fermentation.
Desperate times call for desperate measures. And I was getting there. So we made our first attempt omitting the eggs and using our small karahi so that we would have the up-turned shape to the appams. Not bad at all. And I continue to use the recipe leaving the eggs out. I have since also acquired the proper equipment – the cast iron appam pan with lid – on my last visit to Coimabatore a few years ago.
Appam (Rice Hoppers)
3 C sela (par-boiled) rice
1/2 C grated fresh coconut
2 t yeast
1 T sugar
salt to taste
oil to season the pan, and some more while cooking appams
Soak the rice overnight in water. Grind to a paste, adding the grated coconut into the last batch. Add sugar and yeast granules to warm water. Leave for 10 minutes, till frothy. Mix into the rice batter and leave for 4-6 hrs.
To make appams, mix salt into the batter. The batter should be of a pouring consistency but not watery. Smear some oil on your appam pan or karahi or any cast iron pan and heat it. Pour about 1/4 C batter into the pan and swirl the pan around to ‘spread’ the batter. Some of the batter should pool into the centre. Sprinkle a few drops of oil and cover the pan for 2-3 minutes. Cook uncovered for another couple of minutes or so. The appam should start to separate from the pan (usually). Use a spatula to loosen the sides if required and remove. The appams will not brown like dosas because there is no dal in the batter. Serve with avial or ishtew.Go ahead, don’t be intimidated. Remember, it’s ambrosia! You gotta live a little.